FLINT, Mich. – A man accused of a deadly series of stabbings in Michigan was mentally ill and couldn't resist the spell of "evil forces" that compelled him to attack people, a psychiatrist testified Thursday as attorneys tried to overcome strong evidence with an insanity defense.
Elias Abuelazam is paranoid schizophrenic and was overwhelmed by delusions that led him to attack random victims along dark, Flint-area streets during the summer of 2010, Dr. Norman Miller told the Genesee County jury.
Abuelazam, 35, is on trial for the death of Arnold Minor, who was 49 when he was stabbed that August near downtown Flint. Abuezalam is also charged with fatally stabbing two more victims, and he faces attempted murder charges for six other Flint-area attacks and another in Toledo, Ohio.
If convicted, the Israeli immigrant would face life in prison. Faced with strong evidence linking him to Minor's slaying, including testimony from four men who survived knifings and fingered Abuelazam in court as their attacker, defense attorneys began presenting an insanity defense by calling Miller as their only witness.
"The delusions controlled him," Miller testified. "They not only told him but compelled him to hurt people. This isn't easy to explain or understand. People who are delusional are operating under forces that are greater than them. Their personalities are not making the decisions."
On cross-examination, prosecutor David Leyton skeptically wondered why "evil spirits" were influencing Abuelazam to attack mostly small black men on deserted streets with no witnesses after midnight.
"Isn't it just possible he knew exactly what he was doing? Isn't it possible he derived some pleasure from these acts?" Leyton asked.
"No," Miller replied.
The testimony was the defense team's first public explanation for the attacks, which terrified the working-class city of Flint. Fourteen people were stabbed in the area, and five of them died, including Minor. Survivors said their assailant claimed to have car trouble or asked for directions before attacking.
Minor's DNA was found in blood stains in Abuelazam's Chevy Blazer and on his jeans and shoes, according to testimony by police.
Miller said Abuelazam acknowledged stabbing at least eight victims during interviews at the Genesee County jail. He described Abuelazam as a "marionette" whose strings were pulled by delusions.
Abuelazam was under the spell of "evil forces trying to control him. ... He says it's terrible what happened. He doesn't like what happened," the psychiatrist told jurors.
In rebuttal, a state of Michigan psychologist testifying for prosecutors said Abuelazam told him, too, about being possessed by evil spirits and having a need "to feed this monster" by attacking others. But Thomas Brewer said Abuelazam still should be held "criminally responsible" because he was able to control himself and back off when he felt it necessary.
Before Thursday, there had been little discussion of Abuelazam's personal life, and no relatives have appeared to watch the trial, 60 miles north of Detroit. He is a permanent U.S. resident from Israel who has lived in Florida and Virginia. He spent just a few months in Flint, moving into a house owned by an uncle.
Miller said Abuelazam attempted suicide by stabbing himself in the neck in 1997 and, in 2009, was diagnosed with mental illness after stabbing a friend in Israel.
After Miller left the witness stand, Abuelazam told Judge Judith Fullerton that he would not testify in his own defense.
Ahead of the hearing, experts said an insanity defense is very difficult to pull off in Michigan, partly because jurors have the option of convicting someone of murder while also finding mental illness was involved. In the end, it still means life in prison without parole.
"Jurors are common-sense people," said Robert Ashley, a lawyer not involved in the Abuelazam case. "You can convince them with proper testimony that someone might be mentally ill, but you still have a dead body. They want someone to have responsibility for that."